Hello again, and welcome to another PlusHeart.
This past week I’ve been reading a bunch of This is Not a T-shirt, a book by Bobby Kim, who started a streetwear fashion brand called The Hundreds. The book is both a memoir and a bit of a primer when it comes to fashion itself; I like it a lot because it explores a lot of the culture surrounding why this person’s brand took off. With memoirs you have the chance to be loaded with anecdotes that don’t actually say anything, and I’m happy that this isn’t that.
The reason I picked up this book (and others) is that I wanted PlusHeart to involve fashion, because it’s an outward representation of an esports company’s brand: they would not make an item if they didn’t think it wouldn’t sell or speak to a member of their community.
The salability of that piece of merch is a litmus test to all the other work they’ve done in the past to build up their brand as attractive. By getting a fan to spend money on an item that represents a company, they’ve successfully made a big enough impact in their relationship to warrant a “reward.”
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In coming up with some topics for PlusHeart, I thought about starting with the “basics” of different clothing items, and there’s nothing more basic than the t-shirt. Everyone has them, everyone has worn them, and we all know how it feels to wear one we don’t like. This issue is going to look into the t-shirt as esports’ most basic unit of merchandise.
“On a spiritual level, however, the T-shirt is effective because it’s about messaging. Young people are not always the best communicators, but they have plenty to get off their chest (pun intended). To this day, that’s my primary rule when it comes to designing T-shirts: have something to say.”
— This is Not a T-shirt
The T-shirt has a long and illustrious history in DIY merch because it’s cheap to produce, and has good margins in terms of profit. I’m not a fashion sourcer, and Blankshirts.com is probably not the cheapest you can go, but if you’re buying in bulk, you can get as low as $2 on a Hanes. Selling those for $20-30 means a hefty amount of profit.
For many smaller teams, you’re likely going to be starting with slapping the logo on a blank and then relying on that brand relationship to carry the purchase. However, as the team gets bigger, the idea of selling a design with a specific purpose means the potential for multiple purchases. Obviously, things expand.
This concept evolves a step further when sponsor space gets introduced, because in some cases, this t-shirt can be really similar to what the players wear as jerseys.
It goes beyond wearing the brand itself to wearing the identity of a player, and this is something people are passionate about. I’ve worked in situations where people were mad that they couldn’t wear the same sponsor logos as the players (because of licensing issues); even though they weren’t paid to wear them, those logos connected them to the real.
A lot of this “progression of style” isn’t exclusive to esports; you’ll find the same cycle in traditional sports, music, or video game branding.
Where we’re seeing esports go further is the adoption of hip-hop/streetwear culture, rather than just styles.
“Streetwear, however, is simply the merchandise associated with an attitude”
— This is Not a T-shirt
If you ask esports fans “who is doing merch the best?”, you’re likely going to get a bunch of “100 Thieves” answers. They have done a great job in producing merch that carries cultural weight; that’s extremely hard to do, and many brands are looking to do that without knowing exactly how.
Being successful there means knowing your brand’s values and principles, and being able to distil them down into an easy-communicable form. Without accessing any internal documents (which I’d hope would exist), I would say that I perceive 100T to be about being stylish, fashionable, chasing trends (or being ahead of them) and showing the uniqueness of the owner through what they’re wearing.
They are the “cool” flavor of gaming fan; they represent the emergence of gaming as a mainstream fixture, and the evolution away from the “nerds in the basement” stereotype. They aren’t just playing games, but they’re crushing it to the point where they’re winning championships and making mad money. They want you along for the ride.
This is Nadeshot taking what he learned about OpTic Gaming’s engaging of the Call of Duty audience at their peak, crystallizing it like meth, and removing the impurities. Don’t get tied down to just gaming. Move beyond it. Move beyond the reliance on results, and create your own ideology.
Again, every brand is trying to do this, but 100T is successful at it; they did it through making people feel included, yet making their fans feel that they’ve joined an exclusive club while doing so.
100T’s model includes forced exclusivity through “drops” of merchandise; they’re limited, and they show up on secondary markets as valuable pieces, which lends to the air of luxury. If you’ve camped out (digitally and physically) for a piece of 100T merch and manage to get what you want, you’ve felt like you’ve beat the system.
Alternatively, if you want to feel extra special, you can scalp your piece of merch and enjoy your profit. You were smart. You still get to beat the system.
I know that sounds shallow, but it’s all in the framing: if you’re able to make people think they’re uniting with other similar-minded people in the pursuit of the drip, that feeling of community can mask the consumerism.
"With quality, fit and style in mind, 100 Thieves presents the ‘Foundations’ collection. We created this product with the intent to provide something foundational for anyone, every day."
— 100T's Store
I just thought I’d include the above quote, because that’s what on their page for their “basics” collection. It doesn’t say anything. I found it funny.
But I guess it doesn’t need to. It just needs to further the principles. By purchasing the most basic-of-basic shirt, you’re in the club. You (might) get people to think you’re cool. You’re supporting your faves. The family takes care of their own.
“It’s as if, subconsciously or by design, we’d created a streetwear brand just so we could exist.”
— This is Not a T-shirt
What stuck with me about what I’ve read so far about This is Not a T-shirt was that there seemed to be more counter-culture influence in streetwear, rebellion, and pushing back against “normie-friendly” culture. I’m not sure if esports has either skipped that phase, or already left it behind.
Despite feeling like we’ve moved past the “smelly nerd” phase and towards a new gaming hegemony, there’s still this fracturing that’s present: the “old esports” fans have not aged out of being esports fans. They’ve either adapted to brands that still respect their legacies, or found new places to call home.
For the new school of fan, they might never have known when esports or video games were an uncool thing to like. As new generations are born with cellphones in their hands, these things feel more natural, and their peers accept it easier. We’re taught that gatekeeping is a bad thing; in a lot of cases, it can be toxic, but in others it keeps culture consistent, and makes sure new fans know the score. If everyone is accepted, and no opinion is incorrect, “the scene” feels like grey sludge. Everyone is special, so nothing is.
I feel in the middle between those two camps: not quite in the “watching KR StarCraft: Brood War at 3AM” space, but also not quite vibing with what 100T and other brands have determined as the “new real.” I feel less inclined to splay logos across my chest and more likely to respect lower-key designs that allow me to pick and choose when to communicate what I care about.
I created an open thread last Friday to talk about this topic, and part of a response I got said:
I’m personally a fan of the “subtle” branded clothing. I don’t buy much new clothing, so while sometimes I like to shout my fandoms from the rooftop, it makes more sense for me to invest in clothing that has the dual-purpose of being comfortable and appropriate for any scenario, while still showing some personality. For those who aren’t familiar with the brand, I pass as an average human being. For those “in the know,” recognition and connection over mutual interests is a lovely moment shared.
Reading this, I understand the vibe entirely, and I think brands do too; you can wear 100T merch without it being understood that it’s 100T merch, and in some cases, the names of the brand itself can be easily “hidden”. So much of streetwear culture has bled into esports (in an authentic way or not) that esports names can seem like obscure fashion labels. If you know, you know.
I’m curious about this interaction between brand and audience because I’m always thinking of when a brand pushes things a little too far, and the connection becomes a lot less authentic. To a lot of these fans, the relationship matters because they’re able to find where they belong, even if they aren’t running from bullying for liking video games.
Maybe I’m being a bit too romantic. This is a thought process to be developed for another time.
Nothing huge to report this week. I liked doing Open Threads (primarily because it's a manageable way to do community management. I'm mostly just looking after my mental health during a job hunt, and hoping that works out soon.
I've also launched a consulting page on my dot-com, mostly because I've been getting some asks about helping with esports projects.
See you next issue!